Understanding Feline Behaviour: Stress

Author: Danielle Fletcher
Published: Friday 4th October 2013
Updated: Wednesday 8th January 2014

How are they really feeling?

Just like humans, cats have a wide range of personalities. It is easy to forget that animals are also capable of complex emotions because they simply cannot tell us what is wrong and we frequently overlook obvious signs of problems. Up to 10% of euthanised animals are a result of unresolved negative behaviours. Often, behavioural problems in pets lead to owners relinquishing their animals to shelters or abandoning them because they are unable to solve the issues presented. Unwanted behaviour in cats can range from severe aggression, litter box avoidance, furniture scratching and loud vocalisation to withdrawal and unresponsiveness. Whatever the symptoms, animals deserve to have their problems paid attention to. It is our responsibility as pet owners to ensure the health and welfare of our animals, and it begins with understanding their behaviour.

Living alongside humans with busy modern lifestyles can be especially stressful for cats and often we do not realise that some cats spend much of their lives battling the stresses of our homes and neighbourhoods. Cats are extremely sensitive creatures, favouring routine and familiarity. Many behavioural issues are related to continued disruption of a routine or comfort zone and being an attentive cat owner will help you to improve things for your pet should they show distress.


  • Moving house: moving house changes a cat's environment completely, leaving it surrounded by unfamiliar smells and no place it associates with safety and security. When moving house with a cat, try to keep it with its favourite blankets and toys that will be rich in its own scent. Confining it to one room while you unpack often helps to calm the cat down as it will come to associate that room as a safe place to retreat.
  • New job or absent owners: when an owner starts a new job, often working hours change and the feeding routine and free time to spend with a cat changes, upsetting it. Efforts should be taken to minimise the impact on your pets and to ensure that they still get quality time with you where they can relax. Make sure a cat has plenty of toys and scratching posts to occupy its attention while you are not at home. Many cats find absence of an owner extremely upsetting and while on holiday, if leaving items with your scent on does not help to pacify your cat, it may be worth considering a cattery. Sometimes a change of environment is actually less stressful than remaining in the home without familiar people.
  • New baby/partner/pet/guests: new people and animals in the home can be of concern to pets, either being seen as a threat or detracting from the attention you give them. A baby or new pet should be introduced slowly and over time a mutual understanding will evolve between the cat and child/other pet. A new partner may need to earn the trust of your cat, so again introductions should be gradual, preferably at a time when the cat is relaxed, after food or exercise. If your cat is wary of guests, introduce them calmly and try to ensure that it has a place to retreat to where it will not be disturbed if it wishes to relax alone.
  • Loud noises: cats' ears are much more sensitive than our own, making loud noises painful and even frightening. Try to plan ahead when you know that a party or other loud events such as fireworks will occur and confine your cat to a room in which it will be comfortable.
  • Redecorating/building work: builders can be very noisy and destructive in a cats environment. Building and redecorating work abolish the familiar scents so again, a quiet place with a cat's 'ordinary' smells is important.
  • Strange cats in their territory: presence of another cat in your garden (your cat's territory) may seem threatening. If your cat sees another through the window it may want to chase it off. Being unable to get to an intruder may frustrate your cat, leading to outbursts of aggression towards yourself or others in the home. If this is the case consider blocking your cat's view of the garden and make sure that it has many other distractions to keep it entertained.
  • Co-habitation with other cats: cats are solitary animals, usually unwilling to share food bowls, litter trays and sleeping quarters. If you have more than cat, make sure you have enough beds and litter trays so that each has one of its own, and keep bowls separate to avoid conflicts.
  • Visiting the vets: some cats find the entire process of being in a cat carrier, the journey to the practice, the examination and presence of unfamiliar animals very unnerving. Put a blanket your cat usually sleeps with in the carrier and let your cat become accustomed to it gradually before the day of the appointment. This will help your cat to relax, preventing a struggle and unnecessary distress on the day.

The early weeks of a cat's life are crucially linked to how well they cope with stress and anxiety later on. Between 2 to 8 weeks old, kittens should be handled by a range of different people, introduced to dogs and children and be within a stimulating, challenging environment to immunise them to potentially distressing situations.


Cats and other animals experience many of the same feelings as humans- frustration, anxiety, fear, loneliness etc. Symptoms of stress can be very obvious and are seen regularly in zoo environments where animals pace repetitively, over-groom and bite the bars of their enclosures. The ways in which stress and negative emotions manifest in cats will vary between individuals but behaviours can be split into two different groups with defined characteristics.

'Active Responders'

  • very needy with their owners, following them everywhere
  • often very vocal, yowling loudly
  • show destructive behaviour such as scratching furniture
  • begin to inappropriately eliminate (urinate) and soil indoors, avoiding the litter box
  • may show aggressive behaviour towards other cats and humans
  • if enclosed in a pen or cage, a cat may swipe at passing people, climb the bars and attempt to escape.

'Passive Responders'

  • withdraw into themselves, becoming less interested in social interactions and physical stimulation
  • may become increasingly immobile or attempt to hide
  • no vocalisations with the exception of hissing or growling when they feel threatened
  • change of (over-/under-) feeding and grooming or toilet habits (eliminating and soiling indoors)
  • behaviour and feelings are very similar to humans with depression.

Signs of stress are frequently misinterpreted or ignored by owners. Active responses to stress are often seen as boisterous behaviour, and outbursts of aggression are a readily accepted as part of a cat's nature or labeled as 'rough play' by relaxed owners. Other issues such as regular messing indoors are less problematic for some people than others and are tolerated, leaving stress alerts unnoticed. Passive responses are commonly thought to be part of a cat's quiet or relaxed personality, when in truth the cat has resorted to withdrawing to deal with stress. In either situation, their lives continue along an unpleasant path.

The most common behavioural complaint related to stress with cats is avoidance of the litter box, going to the toilet around the house and on their owners' belongings. Cats are usually fastidious regarding their toilet habits (either using a litter tray or a particular spot in the garden) and are normally very clean animals, so it is vital to get to the bottom of any change. It is important to note that inappropriate elimination is not a form of revenge or protest. There are a many reasons that may upset a cat's habits, and you may find that the occasional "accident" is a genuine mistake or a result of upset or fear. If discoveries become regular, thorough investigation and a trip to the vets is required to check both emotional and physical welfare. Whatever the reason, you must not shout at or punish your pet, as this will only make your cat fearful and stressed, making soiling more likely to happen again.

Other possible reasons for litter tray avoidance and soiling indoors:

Medical problems/ illness: when you first notice regular accidents around your home, you should take you cat to the vet for a full check up. Soiling may be down to an underlying medical problem such as cystitis, feline urological syndrome (FUS) or diabetes. Cystitis is the inflammation of the bladder due to infection or irritation. It often accompanies other urinary tract problems commonly known as FUS. Symptoms of cystitis include sudden stop in litter box usage, straining when urinating with little being released, and blood in the urine (haematuria). Your cat may also excessively lick the genital area and cry when attempting to urinate. Many experts agree that diet and water intake have a large influence over how likely a cat is to develop urinary tract problems. Increasing intake of water can significantly reduce chances of developing cystitis. If the body does not have enough water it retains it wherever it can, usually reabsorbing it from urine, leaving it more concentrated. Like humans, pH of a cat's urine is important, and if it is very alkaline it increases the chance of crystals and stones forming, leading to cystitis and blockage of the urinary opening in some cats, usually males. Bacterial infection may be another cause of cystitis and your vet will advise you accordingly depending on the cause of illness. Diabetes Mellitus is the result of a shortage of insulin (this is the same in both cats and humans). Diabetics experience unquenched thirst and produce large amounts of urine, which can often lead to regular accidents if your pet cannot make it to the litter tray in time. Your vet will be able to diagnose and provide treatment which should resolve the soiling issues.

Litter tray issues: sudden avoidance of the litter tray not related to illness may be due to a variety of reasons.

  • dislike of the litter used- avoid sudden changes of litter type and try to stick to one your cat likes
  • location- make sure it is not too close to where the cat eats and ensure it is easily accessible
  • dirty litter-cats are naturally clean so change litter regularly to avoid your cat being put off
  • type of litter tray-some cats prefer open trays so they cannot be trapped by another cat or feel too enclosed
  • multi-cat house-it is advisable to have one litter tray per cat in a household as many don't like sharing, plus an extra one if a cat prefers to urinate in one and defecate in another.

Spraying, scratching and middening

Spraying may be confused with full urination. Deciphering which act your cat is guilty of is simple. A urinating cat will squat to empty its bladder fully, whereas a cat spraying stands normally with its tail raised in the air as it sprays horizontally onto the surface behind it. Scratching is necessary for a cat to maintain its claws however, widespread scratching around your home and on furniture is normally an indication of stress and anxiety. Middening is a term used to describe deliberate defaecation. All of these behaviours are related to scent-marking territory. Scent-marking asserts dominance over an area and being surrounded by familiar scents makes cats feel safe. Spraying, scratching and middening can all be triggered by stress and are attempts to regain a feeling of security.

Unrelenting stress can lead to more serious conditions

Long-term behavioural conditions such as compulsive disorders may develop in a cat unable to deal with or escape the stressor(s) upsetting it. Owners may also contribute to reinforcing these behaviours, either with attention or food after a compulsive action. Over time, a response to a particular stressor can become fixed and occur in absence of the original catalyst. These are much more difficult to treat once ingrained into the animal and require professional advice to improve the cat's condition.

Minimising stress for your cat

Whether your cat is an active or a passive responder, the catalyst for the behaviours are the same. Understanding how everyday life can affect cats is key to helping them.

  • Avoid prolonged stressful situations as discussed above.
  • Provide scratching posts and perches- scratching is a cat's natural form of stress relief as well as helping to keep claws healthy. Cats generally prefer to be up high and perches provide safe places for your cat to be near you but out of the way where it can relax and watch what is going on.
  • Spend quality time with your pet every day- set aside 15 minutes to cuddle and play with your cat. This will strengthen your bond and relax you both. The better you know your cat, the easier to will be to spot any problems they are having.
  • Pheromone therapy 'pheromonatherapy'- we stock Feliway Spray and Feliway Diffuser products which have been specially formulated to mimic the natural chemicals, pheromones, produced by cats. Cats produce pheromones to communicate positive messages and mark objects and territories as familiar. Feliway products can be used around the house and in cat carriers, to aid in calming a nervous or stressed cat. feliway is particularly useful in prevention of stress-induced spraying and scratching, and to diffuse stressful situations such as moving house and conflicts with other cats.